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Senators near a deal on background checks

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is closing in on a deal requiring background checks for all private firearms sales with limited exemptions, officials said.


If the group, led by two Democrats and two Republicans, comes to an agreement, it would be the first step toward consideration of legislation to limit gun violence in the wake of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., the Washington Post reported Saturday.

"These negotiations are challenging, as you'd expect on an issue as complicated as guns," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Saturday. "But all of the senators involved are approaching this in good faith. We are all serious about wanting to get something done, and we are going to keep trying."


Lawmakers have yet to come to an agreement about keeping records of private gun sales, aides familiar with the talks told the Post.

Democrats argue that keeping records of private sales is needed to enforce any new law and because current federal law requires licensed firearm dealers to keep records. Republicans, however, maintain that records of private sales could put an undue burden on gun owners or could be seen by gun rights advocates as an precursor to a national gun registry.

Senators are considering the creation of an online portal that would allow buyers and sellers to conduct background checks or to allow federally licensed gun retailers, such as Wal-Mart or Dick's Sporting Goods, to charge a small fee to do background checks for private dealers, aides said.

Report: U.S. made secret N. Korea trips

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The Obama administration secretly sent envoys to North Korea to meet with the new leadership of the secretive state, U.S, officials told the Los Angeles Times.

The two undisclosed trips by administration officials last year were aimed at seeing if a new level of cooperation could be forged with Kim Jong Un after he assumed power in late 2011.


Ranking officials refused to comment on the trips, although Korea experts in the United States said they were worth the effort despite the apparent lack of success.

"I don't know why at this point the administration just doesn't set the record straight on this," said a former U.S. official. "All it shows is that we were trying to walk the last mile with North Korea."

Sources told the Times the trips were aimed at personally encouraging the new leadership in Pyongyang to shelve its missile testing and tone down its overall belligerence; however, the North Koreans were not to be dissuaded.

The Times said the White House refused to comment on the election year missions in part because they did not want to open them up to scrutiny from Congress as well as the leadership in South Korea and Japan.

The missions appeared to be led by career diplomats and intelligence officials and apparently did not include any political figures or advisers from the administration.

Pope gives final blessings at St. Peter's

VATICAN CITY, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Pope Benedict XVI delivered his final public blessing Sunday at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City, saying he will take up life of prayer.


"The Lord is calling me to 'climb the mountain,' to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation," Benedict said. "But this does not mean abandoning the Church, indeed, if God is asking me to do this it is so that I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength."

After giving a brief sermon, Benedict chanted the Angelus, a common Catholic prayer, with the crowd, CNN reported.

"I thank everyone for the many expressions of gratitude, affection and closeness in prayer which I have received in these days," the pope told the crowd in closing. "Upon all of you I invoke God's abundant blessings."

Benedict, 85, announced that he was resigning earlier this month, citing his advanced age. Thursday will be his last day as pope.

Italian media has alleged that gay clergy may have made themselves vulnerable to blackmail by male prostitutes, setting off speculation that a brewing scandal may have prompted the pope's resignation.

The Vatican denied these allegations Saturday.

Israel gearing up for more violence

JERUSALEM, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Israel security forces were on high alert Sunday amid fears West Bank clashes would escalate after the death of a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail.


Clashes in the West Bank between protesting Palestinians and Israeli security forces erupted in the Hebron area Sunday morning and 4,500 Palestinian security prisoners incarcerated in Israel threatened a one-day hunger strike to protest the death of Arafat Jaradat, 30, who died Saturday in an Israeli prison. Initial reports said Jaradat, who was not one of the hunger-strikers, died of heart failure.

Violence was reported Sunday in Jaradat's village of Sair and other areas around Hebron, Israel Radio said.

Unrest escalated in the West Bank and areas of east Jerusalem last week with Palestinians demanding the release of four prisoners on hunger strikes in Israeli jails. Jaradat's death Saturday added further fuel to an already tense situation, Israeli military officials said. Israeli Arab Knesset members participated in a protest march in Nazareth.

A statement released by the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet, Sunday said an investigation into Jaradat's death was under way. Jaradat was arrested last Monday for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli vehicles on West Bank highways, the Shin Bet said. Doctors examined him a number of times and no medical problems were discovered. However, reports said he went to his cell after eating his midday meal Saturday, saying he did not feel well. Medics summoned to his cell attempted to resuscitate him, to no avail.


Issa Qaraqi, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, accused Israel of torturing Jeradat, The Jerusalem Post said. Qaraqi said an autopsy would be conducted in the presence of a Palestinian coroner, a member of Jaradat's family and his lawyer, Israel Radio said.

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